Officials say that a fire burning across five California counties had reached 102,000 acres and was just five percent contained by Wed. August 19.


Massive wildfires ignited by lightning continued to rage Monday on all sides of the San Francisco Bay area, and much of Northern California was under a red flag warning as high winds with lightning threatened to spark even more flames.

Three vast blazes are scorching Northern California, and more than 650 wildfires, most sparked by lightning, have burned across the state in the last week.

At least seven people have died, including the first victim of the CZU Lightning Complex fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco, who was found dead Sunday.

Nearly a quarter-million people are under evacuation orders and warnings as weather forecasts signaled the looming threat of more lightning with hot temperatures and unpredictable winds.

Here’s what we know on Monday:

LNU Lightning Complex, SCU Lightning Complex, CZU Lightning Complex burning area around San Francisco

On all sides of the San Francisco Bay Area, three of the largest fires in California are burning: the LNU Lightning Complex to the north has burned 347,630 acres and was 21% contained; the SCU Lightning Complex to the southeast has burned 343,965 acres and was 10% contained; and the CZU Lightning Complex to the south has burned 74,000 and was 8% contained.

A lightning complex is a group of fires started by lightning strikes.

California fires: This is how a lightning storm can start a wildfire

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the LNU Lightning Complex in California’s wine country is expected to grow. “Fires continue to make runs in multiple directions, impacting multiple communities,” Cal Fire said. More than 1,000 structures have been destroyed or damaged, and at least four fatalities have been confirmed since the fire started burning last Monday.

The SCU Lightning Complex in the Santa Clara area “merged into two major fires and are broken into three zones,” Cal Fire says.

With both the LNU and SCU complexes burning more than 500 square miles, the fires have become two of the three largest fires in state history.

In the CZU Lightning Complex, the body of a 70-year-old man was discovered Sunday in a remote area called Last Chance. Approximately 77,000 people have been evacuated from the CZU complex, Cal Fire says.

“This is one of the darkest periods we’ve been in with this fire,” Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Chris Clark said.

Across California, more than 12,000 lighting strikes have been recorded since Aug. 15, igniting hundreds of blazes. More than 14,0000 firefighters, 2,400 engines and 95 aircraft are combating the fires.

According to the Los Angeles Times, wildfires have burned more than 1.2 million acres of land in California since last month. In all of 2019, which was a slow year for fires, only 259,000 acres, the Times reported.

In Southern California, several fires are burning around the Los Angeles area, including an 11-day-old blaze that held steady at just under 50 square miles.

Forecast calls for more dry thunderstorms that could ignite even more blazes

Most of Northern California remains under red flag warnings, indicating “critical fire weather conditions,” as more dry thunderstorms threaten the state.

The dry storms could bring more lightning strikes as well as gusty winds that could spread any fire started by the strike.

The red flag warnings were in effect through Monday night. 

Mark Brunton, a battalion chief for Cal Fire, said firefighters are prepared for more flames, but he’s not sure what to expect.

“There’s a lot of potential for things to really go crazy out there,” he said. 

Reports of ‘sickening’ looting of fire victims, including a firefighter

As tens of thousands have been forced from their homes, looters have taken advantage of the situation, local authorities have warned.

In one case, a looter burglarized a California firefighter’s marked vehicle, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said Sunday.

Brunton called the incident “sickening” and said the firefighter’s wallet was stolen and his bank account was “drained” while he was at work directing firefighting crews in the area. 

Hart said his department has made eight arrests related to looting so far. Some of the looters have been from outside the area, he said. Others are neighbors. Looters have taken personal possessions inside homes and guns, for example. Hart added a story he heard about a group trying to take an outdoor heating system. 

“I have no empathy, I have no patience for somebody who is going to come into our community and steal from people who have been who have been evacuated and victimized and traumatized,” Hart said. 

Air quality worsens in north, central California

With so many fires burning throughout the state, unhealthy air full of smoke continues to blanket the areas around the blazes and south in Central California

The National Weather Service issued air quality alerts throughout much of the Bay Area and central California “until fires are extinguished.”

“Exposure to particle pollution can cause serious health problems, aggravate lung disease, cause asthma attacks and acute bronchitis, and increase risk of respiratory infection,” the weather service says.

An air quality index map showed much of the Central Valley with “unhealthy” air.

The National Weather Service in Hanford said smoke was forecast to move north Monday. “Regardless, air quality Monday will be unhealthy for everyone. Stay indoors if possible,” the weather service office said in a tweet.

How to stay safe from wildfire smoke

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wildfire smoke can irritate your eyes, nose, throat and lungs, make it hard to breathe and make you cough or wheeze.

To reduce exposure to smoke, the CDC recommends choosing a room that can be closed off to outside air. Place a portable air cleaner or filter in the room if possible, the CDC says, and wear a respirator to filter out smoke. 

While most cloth or surgical masks will help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, they don’t keep people safe from harmful particles in smoke. A mask designed to filter fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, like an N-95, is best, though supplies are scarce because of the pandemic.

An air conditioning unit with high efficiency filters can capture fine particles from smoke, and setting the system to recirculate mode can prevent outside air from coming in. Also, avoid burning candles and frying or broiling meat, the CDC says.

Contributing: Jordan Culver, USA TODAY; Joe Jacquez, Ventura County Star; The Associated Press


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